Extremely high quality optical fibers with much lower attenuation and much wider wavelength range (spectrum window).
Last updated: 2019-02-05
Made In Space has demonstrated pulling ZBLAN optical fiber on ISS and is planning further missions.
FOMS, Physical Optics Corporation and Flawless Fiber are in development.
Very latest research is pointing towards Earth-based solutions using very rapid cooling and magnetic fields.
- Lasers for medical & scientific applications (photonics).
- Military applications like night vision and infrared countermeasures.
- Remote sensing payloads.
- Thermal imaging.
- Spectroscopy (imaging).
- Radiation resistant data links.
Why & Solution
Making ZBLAN glass results in crystallization or the formation of tiny imperfections. Research has shown that it does not happen in microgravity.
Telecommunications sector is facing exponential growth in bandwidth transmission. With almost half of the population in the world not yet online and much higher bandwidth applications like 5G networks, 4K streaming and virtual reality applications still to come, the growth will not be slowing down any time soon. Current solution is to keep building new undersea cables.
Major advantages of ZBLAN are much lower attenuation (signal weakening) and much wider wavelength range. Lower attenuation would reduce the need for repeaters, which are also a security risk and increase latency. Wider wavelength range would allow the transfer of much more data through ZBLAN cable by using many lasers with different wavelengths. There is a large number of spacecraft, scientific, medical and defense equipment working in the infrared wavelength range.
They say to be pioneering the first profitable supply chain in space starting with the world’s most perfect optical fibers that will outperform silica fibers by more than 10x for industries including lasers, sensors, medical devices, and data communications. Later they are planning to produce an exciting array of superior photonic glass products to meet the emerging demands of many industries and applications. They have Dr. Ioana Cozmuta as Co-founder and CTO since May 2018. She was an active proponent of in-space manufacturing at NASA.
To address NASA’s needs for sustainable space operations and full utilization of the International Space Station (ISS). Since then there has been no more news apart from undated note that their mission is planned for early 2019.
In parallel they privately funded the development of expertise and technology to produce fibre in space. Their first fibre machine visible on Figure 5 was launched to the ISS in 2017 to test the system and draw some fiber. Same unit was returned to Earth and sent back to ISS again in 2018. More fiber was drawn in April 2018 and the unit was returned to Earth in the summer of 2018. The results are proprietary, but in August 2018 they raised their first outside funding round when before they primarily sustained themselves through government grants.
They claim to have multiple patents for development and application of wide band gap semiconductors and ZBLAN IR optical fiber, but ZBLAN fiber ones have not been found. They announced first production of superior Silicon Carbide wafers in microgravity in 2014, which is another promising product. They raised funding of €400,000 in 2015. Their social media platforms have been quiet for 2 years. The primary founder Rich Glover, who is still listed as the contact on website, has marked on LinkedIn that he stopped working there in 2018.
They have received a total of $873 000 from NASA SBIR Phase I and II programs to develop Space Facility for Orbital Remote Manufacturing (SPACEFORM). Phase I was meant to increase the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) from TRL3 to TRL5 and Phase II from TRL6 to TRL8. FOMS has also demonstrated fiber production on parabolic aircraft flights in 2014. In the end of 2017, FOMS expected to launch their payload capable of producting multiple kilometer of fiber by the end of 2018. They also received an award from Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). FOMS holds a Trademark on SpaceFiber™. The NASA project funding was protested by Made In Space, which was dismissed.
One kilogram of ZBLAN yields 2.2 kilometers of ZBLAN fiber.1
Another source claimed that in theory a kilogram of preform can produce 3 km of fiber, but thickness not specified. 3
Articles by NASA state that one kilogram of exotic glass feedstock can be expected to produce from 3 to 7 kilometers of fibers in under an hour in microgravity. 3
Selling 2 km of fiber at $150 per meter would total to $300,000. Best case scenario woud be selling 3 km of fiber at $1000 per meter for a total of $3000000.
According to “Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station” from 2017 by US Science and Technology Policy Institute, ZBLAN sells for $175 to $1000 per meter, depending on the quality of the fiber (ThorLabs, FiberLabs) .1
Another study set commercial market price for ZBLAN fibers at $150/meter to $300/meter and best quality exotic fibers from $300/meter to $3,000/meter. 4
Market Size Estimation
Fiber optic market
According to Grand View Research, the fibre optics industry had gross global sales of €4.7 billion in 2015. 5
Another study estimated the fibre optic market will expand at a CAGR of 10% during 2017-2023 and is anticipated to reach the valuation of €5.2 billion by the 2023. 6
According to IBISWorld, the revenue for the optical fibre and cable manufacturing industry is expected to increase 16.0% to $53.75 billion in 2018 and has been growing at an average annualized rate of 19.2%.7
According to “Market Analysis of a Privately Owned and Operated Space Station” published in 2017, the sales of ZBLAN form a very small part of the $3 billion market, but analyst estimated that ZBLAN might be able to capture sales of €260 million to €350 million annually, which would be 10 to 13 percent of the current market. They authors estimated that iff ZBLAN increases its market share by 1 percentage point per year over the next decade, by 2028 its share is likely to be in that range.1
Figure on slide 18 released by NASA Emerging Space Office in 2014 illustrates the potential market share for ZBLAN applications and sets the total at $20 billion.2
In 2006, ZBLAN fibre market was estimated to be $7.56 billion per year. NASA published news based on Kessler Market Intelligence: Spectroscopy $15 Million, Laser Surgery $25 Million, Imaging Fiber Bundle $15 Million, Telecommunications $7500 Million. 8
In 1998, NASA estimated that the commercial potential for ZBLAN to be $2.5 billion a year in the communications industry. 9
Earthly Solution Risk
Very high. Research published in 2018 by Teng-Cheong Ong et al. found that crystallization is suppressed when ZBLAN is cooled very rapidly.
NASA is licensing similar technology: "Combination of a vertical magnetic field and a rapid cool down from the crystallite melting temperature will ensure that no crystals are present in the preform after processing."
- Market size (niche market)
- Number of customers
- Preform cost
- Transmission loss versus cost